Stripped of its diplomacy and erudition, the message from Brian Gerkey, CEO of Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), is simple:
Chill out. Robots aren't going to take your job. (At least not anytime soon.)
Gerkey was asked to contribute some thoughts as part of O'Reilly Media's recent Next: Economy Summit. Called "WTF", the event looked at how work, business, and society are being changed in irrevocable ways by technology. Naturally, the head of the organization that oversees the Robotic Operating System, which has become the open-source standard for industrial and research robotics, chose to talk about how robots will impact jobs in the near future.
What's that I hear? The gentle hum of an electrified third rail?
Gerkey's ruminations on the subject are worth your time, and you can check out his full piece here. In nutshell, though, his argument is straightforward.
Start with the obvious: We have very clearly reached a tipping point in the development and adoption of robots.
"By 2018, 1.3 million new robots will be installed in factories worldwide, an increase of 30% over the number of industrial robots we have today. We've also seen robotics startups attracting significantly more interest from venture capitalists, with robotics companies receiving $341 million in funding in 2014, a 36% increase over 2013."
With Toyota's $1B investment in robotics research, Google's recently added bot division, and an estimated $60B in robotics spending by 2025, it's become apparent that even companies that haven't previously had much interest in the sector now view robotics as fertile ground for strategic growth. It's the same thing that happened with IT and mobile, as I've written.
"All of this money pouring into robotics is resulting in the rapid robotification of everything from airplanes to cars to lawnmowers. This isn't a bad thing ... In the short term, however, increasingly capable robots do seem like they could cause some problems for workers with an interest in job security."
Robots in, workers out. Right? Well, not really, at least not in the way that alarmists think. The reality, as anyone who is both dazzled and disappointed by robots on a daily basis is aware, is that robotics research is still inchoate. The tasks that industrial and commercially available robots can perform are--and I say this with complete deference to my roboticist heroes--pretty darn mundane.
"Over at least the next decade, technological challenges mean that robots are most likely to have a significant impact on just a few specific job sectors, and there is no reason to assume that such an impact will necessarily be a negative one for humans."
The most obvious sector to be impacted by robots is manufacturing, where the perceived threat of automation is nothing new. It's true that flexible collaborative robots like Baxter and the automated systems that help fulfillment centers get packages from the warehouse to your door in short order have taken on some tasks that were previously performed by humans. But that's scant evidence of an impending employment catastrophe.
What's more, Gerkey points out something that's often overlooked in this discussion. Currently 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled in the U.S. due to a lack of qualified applicants. In other words, even if we had robots capable of doing the skilled labor that was once the backbone of American industry (and to be clear, we don't; that technology is a long ways off), those machines would be filling currently vacant jobs.
Agriculture is another area where robots are sometimes held up as a bogeyman, though signs of a net loss of jobs due to automation are scant (read: non-existent). "There is ample evidence that in western countries, there are nowhere near enough people willing to do the work required to produce enough food to meet demand at sustainable rates of pay."
Meanwhile we're on the cusp of a full-blown demographic crisis. The population of people over 65 in the U.S. will increase from 13% in 2010 to 21% in 2050. The majority of people in Japan, South Korea, and Germany will be older than 50 by then. That is a legitimate economic catastrophe on the horizon, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a recent interactive feature:
"Simply put, companies are running out of workers, customers or both. In either case, economic growth suffers. As a population ages, what people buy also changes, shifting more demand toward services such as health care and away from durable goods such as cars."
Robots are a key solution to staving off the potentially devastating consequences of having too many old people and not enough workers. It's no coincidence that elder care is a huge area of investment for companies like Aldebaran and Toyota. There simply aren't enough workers in elder care at the moment. As demographics continue to change, the already limited pool of eldercare workers as a percentage of the population (to say nothing of industrial and other types of workers) will shrink proportionately. Bring on the robots.
Gerkey's most salient point may be this. In the long run, technology has always created more jobs than it replaces. Always. If you take the long view, technology has consistently created jobs.
That doesn't mean the transitions have always been smooth, nor are they likely to be a few decades from now when the much-improved capabilities of robots do begin encroaching on larger numbers of jobs currently held by humans. Strong industry regulation and labor laws can help, and that's where the effort, debate, and political will should be aimed.
As Gerkey eloquently closes: "Fighting the technology itself is a not a productive reaction to this situation."